Relationships start long before sex


Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) is a vital part of education for learners with SEND, argues Johanna Aiyathurai.

For too long now it has been banished from the core subjects, devalued and disempowered. But if we want learners with SEND to become as independent as possible, then RSE needs to take centre stage. 

Young people tell us that independent living is about having choices and control over their own lives. This will be a personal journey for each individual. We don’t know where they will arrive, but we do know that there are key underlying skills and knowledge that will put them on the best path. One of the vital skills is understanding the social dynamics you exist in, and how your behaviour and choices impact them. In short, the better you understand and adapt to social rules, spoken and unspoken, the smoother your journey will be. 

For children with SEND to reach their full potential we need quality, targeted, and differentiated teaching. Learning about relationships, behaviour, personal safety, bodies and health needs to be at the heart of our curriculum, and yet it remains an add-on, or an afterthought, particularly in mainstream settings. 

As a mother to a 13-year-old daughter with Down’s syndrome, I believe building independence relies less on exam grades and more on learning our social rules and norms. Subjects such as Numeracy and literacy are exceptionally important, but they are not more important than RSE.

Making Time for RSE
Making time for RSE is the first step, and real progress is made in the differentiation of the subject to ensure each young person’s needs are properly addressed. RSE covers all aspects of positive healthy relationships, sex, physical health and mental wellbeing. However, young people cannot begin to get into these complex topics unless the core foundations of the subject are taught in an appropriate way. 

There are often assumptions about what young people already know, or it is assumed they will pick-up things through inference. Things that don’t need explicit teaching to typical children may need to be taught and continually reinforced for children with SEND. Areas such as what type of touch is appropriate, personal boundaries, or how to keep safe. 

Picture the scene; a busy year 8 classroom, a young man with Down’s syndrome has completed his task ahead of the others as the teacher sweeps past him en route to help another student. That student reaches out to get the attention of the teacher, but is just the right height to give her bottom a good tap! It’s the third time this week it has happened. We quickly have a situation where that young man may be excluded. By taking time to pick apart the exchange it becomes clear the student simply wanted to gain the attention of the teacher and didn’t fully understand that the act itself was inappropriate. He didn’t understand the social consequences. These concepts need explicit teaching, but they also need repetition and generalisation to ensure the learning is fully embedded.

Differentiating the RSE Curriculum
Our charity, Learn and Thrive, has launched a free teaching video and resource fort teachers in the classroom and parents at home. We have worked with specialist teaching service, Inclusively Down to plan and produce this video series. Its founders, Lucy Clark and Julie Knight, have taught young people with special needs for over 20 years and know first-hand how these concepts need careful consideration in the classroom. 

It is a requirement to teach the recently revised RSE curriculum in all settings, but Lucy and Julie point out that it covers many areas which can be complex for young people with SEND to learn, including personal safety and healthy relationships. Teaching RSE needs approaching in a different way for children with SEND. 

Lucy says, for example, “before discussing how to keep themselves safe we would start with the foundation concepts of what public and private actually means. Once there is a good level of understanding of what is a public space and what is a private space, we can then expand onto the activities that might happen in those different spaces, for example getting changed or going to the toilet. Once these concepts are understood we can expand on the right to privacy, public and private body parts and what a young person can do to protect themselves if their privacy is invaded. For example, giving mum or dad a hug is ok but not teachers at school, or which body parts are appropriate to touch when playing tag with friends. Children with SEND will often need it revisiting year after year to embed the learning and help them become independent in their understanding and application of the topics..”

Discussing RSE at home
We know that reinforcement at home embeds learning. Debbie’s daughter JJ, who has Down’s syndrome, is in Y6 at a special primary school and they are using our Learning for Life resource together at home. Debbie says, “JJ has just started doing RSE at school so it’s excellent timing for us to be doing this series at home because it matches the curriculum she is being taught at school. It’s not something we have really talked about at home yet, so it’s great that it has helped us start those really important discussions. 

Debbie is one of many parents I speak to who want free differentiated resources on this subject area that will help them teach it at home. I believe teachers and parents should have access to the right specialised support to teach RSE properly. Young people with SEND have a right to inclusion in their communities and to have healthy relationships so they can live life to the full.

Johanna Aiyathurai
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Johanna is the CEO of Learn and Thrive, a new charity which empowers learners with Down’s syndrome and other learning needs, through digital learning tools and video resources.


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